The 1962-1970 Buick Wildcat name had a certain ring to it. It fairly suggested action -- motion on the open road. Yet it was textbook General Motors -- taking the name from a one-off 1950s show car, applying it to a specific model within an existing series, and later spinning off an entirely new series. So went the saga of the Buick Wildcat.
Buick's first use of the Wildcat name was on three exciting mid-1950s dream cars. Meanwhile, the Century, a "banker's hot rod" model, was revived. Then in 1962, Buick brought out the first production Wildcat, a new factory hot rod designed to compete with the Oldsmobile Starfire and Pontiac Grand Prix.
The first Wildcat was created as a 1953 two-seater show and experimental car. That was followed in 1954 by an all-new sportier one-off, the Wildcat II, and that in turn was followed by another in 1955, the four-passenger Wildcat III.
The three were widely seen by an enthusiastic public, along with other General Motors "dream cars," both at General Motors' touring Motorama shows and through extensive coverage in the press. The idea was to test public reaction to new styling and engineering ideas and, hopefully, to add a bit of luster to GM's production cars.
Meanwhile, back in Flint, Buick was honing its marketing strategy for the 1950s. Buick maintained three series at the time: Special, Super, Roadmaster. These monikers, first used in the mid-1930s, would persist for more than two decades, and by the early 1950s were almost as well-known as the Buick name itself.
Boasting straight-eight power and heavy-handed -- but popular -- styling, they sold well enough to keep Buick in fourth place in the production race during most years from 1946-1953.
But by the early 1950s, Buick was becoming more aggressive, much as in the mid-1930s after Harlow Curtice took over the division. His task was to revitalize Buick, which after ranking third in the industry in 1930 had fallen to seventh by 1934.
General Motors reportedly was considering dropping Buick altogether, but Curtice -- who had already turned around General Motors' AC Spark Plug Division and would preside over all of GM by the mid-1950s -- knew that heavy emphasis on product was needed to turn the division around. The first result was the smaller 1934 Series 40, a rousing success that instantly became one of Buick's mainstays. After 1935 it was known as the Special.
The Limited also did wonders for Buick's image. An upmarket series, it caused consternation within General Motors because it boasted custom coachwork and was sometimes bigger and more powerful than Cadillac -- but at a more attractive price.
Another astute marketing move was the 1936 Century, often referred to as the original "factory hot rod" or "banker's hot rod." The formula, simple but effective, called for combining Buick's lightest bodies with its most powerful engine, then a 320.2-cubic-inch 120-horsepower straight eight. The name, of course, referred to the car's top speed, impressive in its day.
Advertising called the Century a "Headstart to Happiness!" and admonished male readers to "Take your pretty girl . . . and find a motoring thrill that needs no touch of hazard to give it spice." Sexist perhaps, but the Century served as a powerful image-builder for Buick, and it sold well, too, with first year output of almost 26,000 units.
The Century continued its winning ways until World War II intervened, adding "Compound Carburetion" for 165 horsepower and ever sleeker styling. With the return to peace, however, neither the Century nor Limited were listed on the Buick roster.
For more on postwar Buicks, see the next page.
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Postwar Buicks searched for a wider market, which came together with its new-for-1953 overhead-valve V-8, creating the opportunity to revive the Century for 1954. Using the same formula as in 1936, Buick dropped the Roadmaster's 322-cubic-inch V-8 into the Special's 122-inch wheelbase, and a new banker's hot rod was born.
With 195/200 horsepower, the new Century could accelerate from 0-60 mph in a little over 10 seconds and do an honest 110 mph. The public loved it (the all-new 1954 styling didn't hurt, either), and the results were even better than in 1936: 81,982 Centurys built for the model year.
Record-breaking auto sales were the industry norm in 1955, the Century easily outpacing most to post an output gain of 158,795 units, almost one-quarter of total Buick production. Buick, now in third place ahead of Plymouth, had correctly gauged the performance craze of the mid-1950s and looked forward to even bigger things.
But a reputation for poor brakes, lapses in quality control due to the fast pace of production, and less-than-popular styling in 1957 pushed Buick back into fourth place. The heavily face-lifted 1958s saw chrome trim slathered all over the bulky Buick bodies; grilles, taillights, and bumpers were massive.
Customers rebelled, and Buick slid into fifth place with only about one-third its 1955 volume. A new Limited series was introduced for that recession year, too. It was slightly more expensive than the Cadillac Sixty-Two extended-deck hardtop sedan, and a couple inches longer, to boot. But the timing was as unfortunate as the styling. It was discontinued after only 7,436 units were built for 1958.
Buick swept out all its old cars so it could start with a clean slate for 1959. Not only were the sharply finned cars all-new (as were all GM cars), but so were all of the Buick's nameplates. Out went the Special, Century, Super, and Roadmaster; in came -- respectively -- LeSabre, Invicta, Electra, and Electra 225.
The Invicta, Century's replacement, continued with the formula of using the LeSabre's smaller 123-inch-wheelbase body and Electra's big 401-cubic-inch, 325-horsepower V-8. Production, at 52,851, was better than the 37,558 of the 1958 Century, but poorer than any other postwar Century.
No matter, Buick's new styling and new names didn't generate the enthusiasm Buick had hoped for; the marque slipped even further in industry standings to seventh.
With little choice but to continue with the Invicta, Buick watched its output drop to 45,411 units for 1960 and then tumble to 28,733 for 1961, when the series lost its four-door sedan and brace of wagons. Buick officials must have realized the Invicta had failed as a Century replacement, but their 1962 strategy was confusing at best.
That year, the lower-line LeSabre was trimmed from seven models to four (losing two wagons and a convertible). Meanwhile, Invicta reinstated the wagons, adding them to the existing convertible and two- and four-door hardtops. Then in mid-year came a sixth offering, the Invicta Wildcat hardtop coupe, a one model subseries.
To fully understand the Invicta Wildcat's roots, explore the Wildcat show cars that preceded it in the next section.
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Buick Wildcat Show Cars
In todays "corporatese," Buick Wildcat show cars would be called "concept cars." Back in the 1950s they were "dream cars." Created for the major auto shows -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit -- their sole purpose was to attract attention.
Set against a plush drape, perched atop a slowly rotating turntable, and surrounded by gowned fashion models, the General Motors dream cars did their thing. They made the folks "ooh and aah" a bit, and if everything went right, the viewers just might be motivated go back to their Hometown, U.S.A. Buick dealership with a glint in their eyes.
Since dream cars weren't being vended in the showroom, hopefully the impressed head of the household would, with the help of GMAC if need be, partake of a new Special, Super, or -- better yet -- a Roadmaster.
To be sure, there were side benefits resulting from the show car programs. Stylists got to exercise their imaginations in conjuring up futuristic ideas, no matter how impractical, and perhaps a feature or two from the dream machines might eventually trickle down to the production models.
More likely, a catchy nameplate would later find itself on a more mundane production series. Dream cars were great fodder for the news boys, and press kit black-and-whites most often found their way to the well-thumbed pages of Motor Trend, Speed Age, and Mechanix Illustrated, not to mention the daily newspaper.
By the time the Wildcat I came along, Buick was an old hand at the dream car business. Its Y-Job, with a career dating back to 1938, was the granddaddy of them all. By 1951, Buick had both the LeSabre and XP-300 strutting their stuff on the auto show circuit.
Buick first used the Wildcat name in 1953 on a brand-new show and experimental car. The Wildcat I, as it is now known, was a fiberglass two-seater convertible that measured only 54 inches high and rode a 114-inch wheelbase.
It boasted a slightly warmed up version of Buick's brand new production V-8, whose 322 cubic inches cranked out 188 horsepower, coupled to a Twin-Turbine version of Buick's Dynaflow.
The Wildcat II appeared just a year later, in 1954. It was a smaller, yet more powerful dream car that seemed to take its inspiration at least in part from the Corvette. It was the sports car of the 1950s Wildcats, and it was also the most radically styled.
Again, a fiberglass body was created, this time mounted on a 100-inch wheelbase, with an overall length of 170.9 inches and a height of 48.5 inches. The dramatic styling centered on swept-back front wheel wells and "flying wing" front fenders.
This arrangement left part of the front suspension visible, so these parts were chrome plated along with the exposed wheel openings. The headlights were cowl-mounted, while smaller parking/driving lights nestled under the open fender cavity. Portholes -- three per side -- graced the hood.
The rear styling treatment was strongly suggestive of the limited production 1954 Skylark convertible, while the grille and Dagmar bumper theme appeared on the 1955 production models.
For more on Wildcat show cars, continue to the next page.
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Buick Wildcat Show Car Features
The 1954 Buick Wildcat show car features included a 322-cubic-inch V-8 that was fed by no less than four carburetors, upping horsepower to an impressive 220. The body was finished in an unusual dark tan with a two-tone tan leather interior.
The Wildcat II today is in the care of the Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., Museum in Flint, Michigan. Curiously, the cowl headlights were moved into the openings under the front fenders somewhere along the way, and the Wildcat hood ornament was removed.
The Wildcat name resurfaced in 1955, this time with a III behind it, and looking more like a production car than either of its predecessors. Some dubbed it a "toy" convertible.
This four-passenger Wildcat rode a 110-inch wheelbase and measured a compact 190.5 inches overall. Bright Kimberly Red paint graced the exterior, while the interior was covered in Sovereign Red leather.
The bucket seats swiveled and were separated by a floor-mounted shift lever that controlled the Twin-Turbine transmission. The familiar V-8 again sported four carbs, but further tweaking upped the horsepower to 280.
While the Wildcat III's windshield was of the by-then-familiar panoramic type, the posts were more nearly vertical. Teardrop-shaped wheel cutouts dominated the side view of the car, exposing a part of the fender's undersides. Portholes were conspicuous by their absence.
Even though the Wildcat III may have been the most conservative of the 1950s Wildcats, its grille opening and bumper design, plus the hood and headlight treatment, appeared on the 1956 Buicks. Likewise, the chrome side spear found its way onto the 1956 Roadmasters and the entire 1957 line.
The last Wildcat one-off, aside from the 1997 Riviera Wildcat, debuted in late 1985. By then, show cars were known as "concept vehicles," this one a four-wheel-drive two-seater designed to make the public aware of Buick's high-tech capabilities.
In particular, it showcased Buick's heavy commitment to the V-6 engine, here a state-of-the-art powerplant displacing 231 cubic inches and cranking out 230 horsepower. Featured were dual-overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, and Computer Controlled Coil Ignition system.
The mid-engine PPG Buick was also fitted with an anti-lock brake system (ABS) and sported innovative instrumentation in the center of the steering wheel. A heads-up speedometer display was also featured. The four-wheel-drive system operated full time with a torque split of 34/66 percent front/rear.
The sleek body, boasting a coefficient of drag (Cd) of only 0.28, was constructed of composite carbon fiber and glass, although steel reinforcement was found under the skin. Access to the driver's compartment came from a futuristic canopy arrangement whereby the steering wheel automatically tilted upward as the canopy was raised.
Buick built this Wildcat in cooperation with PPG, Inc. It spent several years at major auto shows and PPG/CART Indy car racing events around the country.
To see how the Wildcat show cars saw the light as production models, continue to the next page for an overview of the 1962 Buick Wildcat.
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1962 Buick Wildcat
The inaugural 1962 Buick Wildcat was one of two hardtop coupes listed as 1962 Invictas. Power came from the Wildcat 455 V-8, a 401-cubic-inch unit that cranked out 325 horsepower for the Electra 225. This was the bread-and-butter Buick powerplant; as installed in LeSabres and lesser Invictas, it developed 265/280 horsepower.
The Invicta Wildcat shared its 123-inch wheelbase with the down-scale LeSabre. Overall length stretched 214.1 inches and it tipped the scales at 4,150 pounds. This first year offering was priced at $3,927, priciest in the line and about $200 more than the standard Invicta two-door hardtop.
Special equipment included a distinctive vinyl top treatment with Wildcat emblems on the C-pillars, exclusive stainless-steel side and rocker panel trim, and a special bucket seat all-vinyl interior. The front fenders carried stylized versions of Buick's fabled portholes; the Wildcat was a "three-holer" as opposed to the four found on the top-line Electras.
Other Wildcat features included a center console that mounted the shift lever, a rear floor light, and a hard-to-read tachometer; foam rubber headliner with chrome-plated roof bows; Custom trim throughout; and aluminum front brake drums, dual exhaust, 15-inch wheels, and Wildcat wheel covers.
Wildcats usually carried a goodly number of options. The long list of extra-cost goodies included power steering, $105; power brakes, $48; radio, $90; tinted glass, $42. Gaining in popularity was factory air conditioning, which added a hefty $430 to the price tag. Most Wildcats went out the door at well over $4,000.
"Buick's unleashed a WILDCAT!" proclaimed the brochure, which was issued separately from the rest of the Buick line because of Wildcat's late introduction. Curiously, it made no mention whatsoever of the Wildcat show cars of the 1950s, even though they were similar in spirit to the production Wildcat.
But Buick was very specific about the new model's role, referring to it as ". . . the new full size, sports-style car [with] sports car touches in a setting of luxury." The theme was emphasized over and over with descriptions such as: "Sports-car wallop . . . sports-car handling . . . sports-car styling."
"The Buick Wildcat is an entirely new idea in driving pleasure," Buick boasted. "It combines the verve of sports-car styling, handling characteristics and power with the comfortable roominess of a full-size family car. Make no mistake, the Wildcat is . . . strictly for American driving." Buick made no attempt to explain how the sports-car handling came about, although the specs listed a link-type stabilizer bar for the front.
No matter, a favorable road test was forthcoming from Motor Trend magazine, which called the Wildcat "a bucket-seat palace." Another description referred to it as Buick's "performance image personification," not unreasonable considering that the Wildcat stormed from 0-60 mph in a mere 8.1 seconds and topped out at 115 mph.
The 1962 Wildcat filled much the same role for Buick as the Starfire convertible had for Oldsmobile in 1961. Total Wildcat production in 1962 was a modest 2,000 units, however, while the Starfire had fared better at 7,600 units. The sporty 1962 Pontiac Grand Prix, also similar in concept, did even better: 30,195 units.
In 1963, Buick's loudest drums were banging for the all-new Riviera, Buick's first personal-luxury coupe. Perhaps because the Riviera was at least partially invading Wildcat territory, the latter blossomed into a three-model series: two- and four-door hardtops and the first production Wildcat convertible. This left the Invicta nameplate to hang around for just one more year -- and then only on a lone Estate Wagon.
For more on the 1963 and 1964 Buick Wildcats, see the next page.
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1963 and 1964 Buick Wildcat
The 1963 and 1964 Buick Wildcat underwent only minor changes. As in 1962, the 1963 Buick Wildcat's body was shared with the one-rung-down LeSabre series. Wheelbase remained at 123 inches, although overall length increased slightly to 215.7 inches. Powertrains went unchanged.
The 1963 Wildcats sported an exclusive horizontal bar grille with the Buick crest housed in a chrome circle in the center. Also specific was a brushed bright sweepspear that swept from the headlights to the middle of the front doors, engulfing the venti-ports in the process.
Upgrades included standard power steering and brakes, although bucket seats were optional on the hardtop sedan. Weight ranged from 4,123 to 4,228 pounds depending on body style.
Rarest of the three Wildcat body styles was the convertible, which saw a production run of 6,021. The coupe, with double the output, was more popular. Most often purchased, however, was the hardtop sedan.
For 1964, the Wildcat series was expanded to include a fourth body style, a four-door pillared sedan. Bodies and powertrain went largely unchanged, although an optional 425-cubic-inch V-8 rated at 340 or 360 horsepower became available. Borrowed from the Riviera, they were called the Wildcat 465 (for the torque rating) and Super Wildcat, respectively.
Style-wise, the horizontal-bar grille motif was continued, although modified. The sides no longer carried the brushed trim, trading it for a broad, ribbed lower body molding just above the rocker panels. Three horizontal fake air vents rode behind the front wheels: "Note the distinctive treatment of the traditional Buick venti-ports," the brochure suggested.
Horizontal taillights replaced the vertical units of 1962-1963. A three-speed manual transmission replaced the automatic as standard, and a four-speed manual was offered for the first time on a Wildcat (and abandoned after 1965). Sporty "Formula Five" chrome-plated steel wheels joined the options list.
Wildcat sales more than doubled to over 84,000 units for 1964. The most popular model was again the hardtop sedan, although the new pillared sedan added over 20,000 units and convertible output rose to almost 8,000.
See the next page to follow the Wildcat story into 1965 and 1966.
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1965 and 1966 Buick Wildcat
More changes were on tap for the 1965 and 1966 Buick Wildcat. Buick marketeers went on a spree in 1965: four body styles as before, but with three different trim levels -- standard, Deluxe, and Custom -- for a total of 10 models. There would never be more Wildcats in a single year.
The tactic worked well, however, pushing 1965 sales a new high: almost 99,000. That figure would stand as the high-water mark for the Wildcat's nine-year run.
Also helping sales in 1965 were all-new, more rounded bodies, as on other General Motors full-size cars. Styling remained unmistakably Wildcat, however, with the front, rear, and sides carrying familiar Wildcat cues, modified to blend with the smoother, less angular body. The sloped roofline, in particular, made the Wildcat look faster.
At the same time, the Wildcat moved up in the world -- and away from its sporty-car image -- by adopting the Electra 225's 126-inch wheelbase. Length swelled to over 219 inches; fortunately, weight increased only marginally.
Engine choices carried over, but Buick continued to push the performance image: "Wildcats come in three strengths: wild (325 horsepower), wilder (340 horsepower), wildest (360 horsepower)."
True perhaps, but when "Uncle" Tom McCahill tested the "wildest" version for Mechanix Illustrated, the best he could do in the 0-60-mph sprint was 9.1 seconds. Helped by the new smoother body lines, top speed reached a creditable 125 mph.
Prices for 1965 ranged from $3,182 to $3,727, the latter for the Custom convertible. It found only 4,398 customers. Most popular, as usual, was the four-door hardtop, with a production run of over 36,000 units spread across the three trim levels.
The hardtop coupes were only a few hundred units behind. The four-door sedan, offered in only two trim levels, was again good for about 20,000 units.
High performance was the news in the Wildcat camp in 1966. A new Gran Sport option centered on the high-winding Wildcat 465 engine: 425-cubic inches, 340-horsepower.
Other components included chrome-plated air cleaner, cast-aluminum rocker arm covers, heavy-duty dual exhaust system, heavy-duty suspension, Positive Traction Differential, 8.45 x 15 whitewall tires, and special internal and external Gran Sport emblems. Faster 15:1-ratio power steering was a desirable option. Offered for the coupe or ragtop, the Gran Sport package was comparatively rare and is highly valued in today's collector market.
The bewildering array of Wildcat models cleared a bit to seven in 1966 as Deluxe versions were abandoned. Three body styles came as standard or Custom, while the sedan was offered only as a standard. Minor refinements attended to the styling, set off by a revised grille.
Advertising in the 1966-1967 era touted Buick, especially the Wildcat, as "The tuned car." An ad picturing the 1966 Wildcat Gran Sport said that "What makes a car a car is styling, performance, ride and handling. Only when they're all tuned together is the car a Buick."
For more on the 1967, 1968, and 1969 Buick Wildcat, see the next page.
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1967, 1968, and 1969 Buick Wildcat
Model changes and a new engine marked the evolution of the 1967, 1968, and 1969 Buick Wildcat. The 1967 Wildcats debuted on September 29, 1966. The model mix remained fixed, but the Gran Sport option was gone.
The big change this year was under the hood: an all-new big-block V-8 displacing 430 cubic inches and cranking out 360 horsepower and 475 lbs/ft torque. Internal engine improvements centered on a better breathing high-tech valve design. For the first time since 1963 there were no engine options, and the only transmission available in 1967 was the Super Turbine automatic.
Stylists were not idle, either. They created a new look for the Wildcat, most noticeably a sweeping "style-line" that began just above the headlights and gradually flowed downward, then leveled off at the rear wheel opening to continue to the rear bumper. This styling theme was reminiscent of the side treatment seen on the 1953 Wildcat I show car.
Prices increased modestly in 1967, about $60, and output came in at just over 70,000 units. Convertibles hovered around 5,000. Total production figures were relatively stable from 1966-1969, but convertibles gradually lost ground, falling from over 5,000 in 1966 to less than 2,400 in 1969.
By 1967, the Wildcat had settled into its role as a slightly sportier Electra 225, whose 126-inch wheelbase it had shared since 1965. The sporty image was giving way to an emphasis on luxury.
For 1968, the convertible was available only as a Custom, so there were but six Wildcats. With the exception of a divided grille that looked more LeSabre than Wildcat, styling was left largely alone.
Likewise, the 430 V-8 carried over. A three-speed manual gearbox reappeared (column mounted), but it's unlikely many were ordered. Most buyers opted for the extra-cost Super Turbine automatic, with choice of column- or console-mounted shift lever.
After 1968, the Wildcat reverted back to the LeSabre's wheelbase. It didn't much matter, however, as output held steady at around 70,000 units from 1966-1969 -- but then tumbled to only 23,615 in 1970.
Smaller was the order of business as the Wildcat's wheelbase fell back to LeSabre's 123.2 inches for 1969. Weight was up, however, about 80 pounds, due no doubt to government safety and emissions mandates taking effect.
The big block V-8 continued on, but a few under-the-skin refinements took place. Among them were an optional variable-ratio power steering system, Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic transmission, and a refined suspension called "Tru-Trac."
Styling was altered modestly, the highlights being yet another new grille, this time more Wildcat-like and a more massive front bumper. The bodyside styleline was broken into two separate sculptures beginning ahead of the front and rear wheels, going over them and then fading downward.
And along with some other trim shuffling, the taillights and fake vents behind the front wheels were altered. Prices ranged from $3,491 to $3,948 for the 1969 Wildcat, which Buick ads called "A New Thoroughbred!"
See the next page to follow the Wildcat story into 1970.
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1970 Buick Wildcat
In its final year of production, sales of the 1970 Buick Wildcat nosedived. Just three body styles remained, all Customs. But the Wildcat got its most powerful engine ever, a new big-block "455-4" developing 370 horses.
Sheet metal and a slightly longer 124-inch wheel-base were shared with LeSabre. As usual, grille, taillights, and trim were altered just enough to identify the new models.
Among the rarest of the 1960s and 1970s Buicks was the 1970 Wildcat Custom convertible. It cost $4,079 and tipped the scales at 4,214 pounds. Output reached only 1,244 units.
For the first time since 1963, there was but one four-door model, the Custom hardtop. Priced at $3,997, it found 12,924 buyers. The hardtop coupe went for $3,949 and 9,447 were built.
Buick never seemed sure whether the Wildcat should be more performance or luxury oriented, more LeSabre or more Electra. After sales nosedived in 1970, the Wildcat was dropped. Thus ended the saga of the "banker's hot rod."
By 1971, the Wildcat nameplate had vanished from the production Buick arena. Replacing it, in that traditional niche between LeSabre and Electra, was a new nameplate: Centurion. Operating largely as a fancier, higher-powered version of the LeSabre -- as had the Wildcat -- it saw production levels slightly higher than Wildcat's dismal 1970 total.
Thus, it lasted only through 1973, after which it was canceled due to lack of interest and a changing marketplace. It was not replaced in the Buick lineup; apparently two big Buicks, LeSabre and Electra 225, were sufficient at the top end. Performance buyers showed a preference for smaller cars (of which Buick had plenty) and luxury buyers ordered Electras, rendering Wildcat/ Centurion redundant.
Although the door was closed on the production chapter of the Wildcat after 1970, Buick would 15 years later reach into its name bin and pull out Wildcat for another show car. This one-off Buick hit the circuit as a two-place, four-wheel-drive machine powered by a dual-overhead-cam V-6.
The production Wildcat, despite its rather racy show car origins, was really a meat-and-potatoes car from the purveyor of solid American transportation -- Buick. At various intervals, Wildcat was either a fancier LeSabre or a down-scaled Electra.
Along the way, more than half a million -- 521,259 to be exact -- found spots of honor in the suburban garages of America. They rolled endless millions of expressway miles with the healthy throb of the most potent V-8s Buick could engineer.
Automatic transmissions shifted, with power-assisted steering and braking, to the sounds of the Beatles and the Beach Boys ringing from the optional Bi-Phonic rear seat speaker. A missed oil change or forgotten lube job was easily forgiven by the mighty Wildcat. Chances are the odometer saw a complete spin, or even two.
And still the big Buicks rolled on, solid as America in the 1960s and as solid as Buick could build them. When better cars were built, Buick -- General Motors' "premium motor car" division -- built them.
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